RAY FLEMING looks at the question marks hanging over tomorrow's election in Afghanistan.

Afghans will tomorrow vote for their next president and for members of the provincial council. Some 17 million of the estimated population of 30 million are said to have been registered to vote but the number who will actually go to the seven thousand polling stations is uncertain. The results should be declared officially in mid-September; collecting the ballot boxes and conveying them to the capital, Kabul, will be a slow process -- some 3'000 donkeys have been pressed into service for the job.

There are many question marks hanging over this election. An American spokesman has been quoted as saying: “A flawed election is better than no election at all.” Yesterday the BBC reported that an Afghan employee in Kabul had gone under cover and found that he could buy up to 1'000 voting cards for the equivalent of six euros each. It is common knowledge that in many tribal areas voters will depend on the advice of their leader on who to vote for and that he will probably have been bribed by one of the candidates. In some areas Taliban fighters have told local people that they will be killed if they vote. The Taliban has alleged that the result of the election has already been decided in Washington, to which allegation the Obama administration has probably sighed and said, “If only...”.

The likely winner of the vote for president is Hamid Karsai who has held the job since 2004. He is a Pushtun, from Afghanistan's biggest tribal group, and his running mate is Mohammad Fatin, a Tajik from the country's second biggest group. Between them they form a tribal coalition that will be hard to beat. A former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah who has mixed Pushtun and Tajik blood is thought to be the only significant challenger. Karsai will need to get 50% of all votes cast in order to avoid a second run-off election against his nearest rival.

All those connected with this election -- especially those countries like Britain which have provided extra troops to ensure that it takes place peacefully -- will most earnestly hope that their task is not prolonged by a second election. Hamid Karsai has not been an effective president; few of the reforms he promised in 2004 have been made and he is widely thought to be corrupt.

However, in Afghanistan's troubled circumstances, the United States and its Nato allies in the country may be saying, “Better the devil you know...”.

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